Separation Anxiety in Dogs
Separation anxiety is an emotional distress response in dogs. It occurs when an anxious dog is separated from the person or persons to whom they are most attached. The resulting response may lead to episodes of destruction, chewing, barking, howling, self-inflicted injury and housebreaking accidents. Separation anxiety occurs when the owner is gone from the home and the dog is left alone. In extreme cases, it can occur when the owner is in a different room or out of the dog's sight.
There is not one specific cause of separation anxiety but many factors influence the syndrome. Improper socialization, hyper-sensitivity to the owner's departure and departure cues, low pet-person interactions, prolonged contact with humans without learning to be alone, improper or incomplete early separation from the mother dog are just a few of the speculated causes.
Separation anxiety is one of many separation-related dog behavior problems that may have different underlying motivations, including fear, anxiety, over-attachment to the person(s) and lack of appropriate stimulation or interactions. This is a serious concern for new pet owners and can lead to the return of the pet without professional help. Up to 28% of dogs may experience some form of separation anxiety syndrome. The syndrome is most commonly seen in dogs greater than 6 months of age, but can also occur in senior pets.
The Signs of the Disorder
Destruction of doors/windows, whining, howling, barking and indoor elimination are the most common signs described. Other signs include depression, lack of appetite, drooling, hiding, shaking, panting, pacing, and attempts to prevent the person's departure. Self-trauma from excessive licking or chewing may also be present.
Pets tend to exhibit excessive attention-seeking behaviors, and prolonged greeting behavior upon the person's return, regardless of the length of the absence. Separation distress can occur regardless of the length of the person's absence, but may occur on and off all day.
Anxiety may be initiated by cues such as the owner getting keys, putting on a coat, packing the car, and walking to the front door. Cues are situations or things to which the pet reacts, leading to separation anxiety.
There are no laboratory or physical test to confirm the diagnosis, which is usually made by clinical history and response to therapy. The physical examination is usually normal.
The best solution is make an appointment with a veterinarian who is board certified or specializes in dog behavior. Doggy daycare or pet sitters are only short term solutions until therapy is complete. Some of the treatment options are:
1. Independent Training
This training can be guided by a certified dog trainer if the signs of anxiety are mild. The pet is trained to be more independent of the person and all attention is initiated by the owner – not the pet. All attention must be earned by performing a task, such as “Sit” or “Down”
Changing the pet's perception of departure cues, such as picking up keys or walking to the door, can be done several times a day without leaving. The goal is to remove the dog's association with the cues and the owner's departures, and to diminish the anxious response
2. Counter-Conditioning and Classical Counter-Conditioning
These are dog behavior techniques that are often used by canine behavioral specialists. The use of these techniques should only be done with professional guidance.
The basics of conditioning are a series on behavioral changes that slowly prevent the anxiety response with the use of training and positive reward. The training technique is individually tailored to the specific departure cues and the situation faced by the owner. There is no cookie cutter method that works for all cases.
The goal of this therapy is that the pet learns not to exhibit anxiety on an owner’s departure or return. The pet is conditioned to display acceptable alternate dog behavior.
Medications are primarily used in conjunction with training and behavioral therapy. They should only be used under the direction of a veterinarian. The drugs listed in this section are intended to provide general information about some of the medications that may be recommended.
Clomipramine (Clomicalm) is an approved drug for the treatment of separation anxiety in dogs older than 6 months of age. This drug must be given daily, not on an “as needed” basis, because it may take 2–4 weeks before behavioral effect is evident
Fluoxetine (Reconcile) is approved by the FDA for use in the treatment of separation anxiety in dogs and is administered daily. Other similar antidepressant drugs, such as amitriptyline, benzodiazepines, such as alprazolam, are used to dampen the level of anxiety, but do have side effects.
Adaptil (Dog Appeasing Pheromone); a synthetic version of the pheromone produced by nursing bitches, which calms puppies and promotes bonding. It is also used to calm dogs in fearful, stressful, and anxiety situations, such as separation anxiety and noise phobias.
About the Author: Dr. Mark Thompson, DVM graduated from The Ontario Veterinary College in 1977. He practiced small animal medicine in Ontario Canada before becoming a Technical Services Veterinarian for a company making medical diets for pets. Dr. Thompson has delivered hundreds of scientific presentations to veterinarians, technicians and pet owners across North America. Prior to joining Found Animals, he worked for the largest pet retailer in North America. He is currently working on opening Adopt & Shop stores in Southern California in order to find homes for adoptable shelter pets.